Ministers are failing to learn lessons from high-profile academy failures that have been costly for taxpayers and damaging to children’s education, a public spending watchdog has warned.
The Commons Public Accounts Committee says it is "particularly worrying" that the Department for Education is not learning from failures involving Wakefield City Academies Trust, Durand Academy and Bright Tribe.
It is now calling on the DfE to review multi-academy trust (MAT) failures and write to the committee, outlining why the problems have come about and how the department plans to strengthen its scrutiny of prospective academy sponsors.
The PAC’s Converting Schools to Academies report, published today, also warns that there is a risk of poorly performing and smaller schools, which are less attractive to academy trusts, being left behind in an incoherent school system.
The committee says the cost of the academies programme to the Department for Education has been £745 million since 2010-11.
However, it warns that the full costs are unknown because the spending carried out by schools and councils is unclear.
The report says: “In the rush to convert large numbers of schools to academies, the department did not pay enough attention to ensuring that its scrutiny of applicants was sufficiently rigorous.
“It is now strengthening how it examines prospective academies’ financial viability and sponsors’ ability to improve the schools they are taking on, but these issues should have been addressed much earlier and the changes do not go far enough.
'Not learning the lessons'
"It is particularly worrying that the department still does not seem to be learning the lessons from high-profile academy failures that have been costly for taxpayers and damaging to children’s education.”
The PAC also warns that some schools that are required to or want to become academies find it difficult to attract potential sponsors or find multi-academy trusts to join.
And the committee of MPs has said that local councils can “incur significant” costs when schools become academies, which affects their capacity to support their remaining maintained schools.
It makes a series of recommendations, including a call for the DfE to set out how it plans to improve transparency for parents, to ensure they have access to information and are built into the accountability system.
Committee chair Meg Hillier MP said: “The interests of pupils should be paramount in education but the increasingly incoherent schools system is putting this principle at risk.
“Government’s haste in pushing ahead with academisation has come at a cost, with high-profile failures indicating significant weaknesses in its assessment regime.
“The DfE accepts it should do better and we expect it to demonstrate it understands the reasons for these failures and will act on the lessons. It must strengthen scrutiny of prospective academies and sponsors.
“Oversight of the sector has become confusingly complex, which can place unnecessary burdens on schools and risks weakening decisions in the conversion process.
“Government must meet these challenges and be far clearer about the direction of travel if stakeholders, not least parents and pupils, are to have faith in its approach.”
A Department for Education spokesman said: "Academies are raising standards, with almost 516,000 children studying in 'good' or 'outstanding' sponsored academies that were typically previously underperforming schools.
"Converting to become an academy is a positive choice made by hundreds of schools every year to give great leaders the freedom to focus on what is best for pupils – any suggestion that the majority are forced to convert is misleading.
“As the report acknowledges, we have strengthened the process for converting schools and set out the standards of governance we expect from multi-academy trusts. The number that have failed to meet those standards represents a tiny fraction of the academies sector – a stark contrast to the previous local authority-led system. We always act quickly to tackle underperformance, taking action to support headteachers and build the capability of trusts to drive further improvements in our schools.”